Let’s give Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein well-deserved credit for making a doomsday movie under COVID conditions and choosing to keep the tone light. Given the impact of quarantine on the world’s collective mental health, their new film How It Ends is refreshing on paper: It’s cheerful and quirky, and positively upbeat about humanity’s last day on Earth. Off paper, it’s a twee bit messy, but at least they put their best and most hopeful foot forward.
How It Ends takes place 24 hours before a smoldering meteor is due to pound our planet into so much galactic road debris. The fundamental question Lister-Jones and Wein ask is simple: What would you do if you knew the end of the world was near? No government agency is positioned to prevent the fireball making a beeline for Earth from destroying it. No ragtag collection of irregulars has a plan to stop the meteor that’s so crazy, it might just work. We’re all gonna die. There’s a weird relief to the inevitability scooting How It Ends along its meandering plot, not just because the film clocks in at 80 minutes and not just because we know where the story’s going. Turns out that accepting mortality is liberating. A whole day with no responsibilities to meet or choices to make, other than the ones we choose for ourselves, sounds like a gift.
As good as that premise reads, Lister-Jones and Wein follow through poorly. Shot with blindingly bright hues, the film spends all its time with Liza (Lister-Jones), a sad sack incapable of lugging her body out of bed without the prompting of a much younger girl (Cailee Spaeny). Liza munches on a tower of pancakes, the first step in her big plan to spend Armageddon holed up before welcoming oblivion with open arms. But that pesky young girl won’t let up, maybe because the young girl is teenage Liza and Liza can’t let go of her. Apparently, Liza has been in conversation with her teen self most of her life, her invisible metaphysical best friend who cajoles Liza out of the house and around the neighborhood in pursuit of closure with her dad (Bradley Whitford), mom (Helen Hunt) and ex (Logan Marshall-Green).
And all along the way she has wacky, clumsy and all-too-precious encounters with a cast including seemingly every single comic actor in Hollywood: Fred Armisen, Paul Scheer, Nick Kroll, Lamorne Morris, Rob Huebel, Bobby Lee, Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Ellis. Olivia Wilde has a brief scene as Liza’s estranged pal. Sharon Van Etten eventually shows up for a sweet but brief respite from Lister-Jones and Wein’s coltish attempts at comedy: She sings, the film stands still, and we forget we’re watching a cutesy-poo cluster in progress. Then the song stops. The meteor continues its descent, and so does How It Ends.
The problem dogging the film from the start is the absence of insight. Nothing that Wein and Lister-Jones have to say about facing the past, making peace with yourself and with the people who psychologically and emotionally scarred you over the course of your life, or even their most central concern, death, turns out to be worth hearing. Maybe the pair deserve leeway for filming How It Ends during a pandemic, when guidance and restrictions forced the cast to awkwardly stand at a distance from each other and appeared to influence Wein’s cinematography (he serves as co-DP with Tyler Beus). Shot-reverse-shot gets old quick, and apart from medium shots, there’s not much in the duo’s photographic arsenal to breathe life into their movie. Like the conclusions Lister-Jones and Wein’s screenplay ultimately draws, their craftsmanship lacks profundity.
Maybe How It Ends needed a barbed edge. Maybe 24 hours isn’t enough time to settle childhood grievances, and maybe—just maybe—that’s alright. Liza finds a measure of peace from her misadventures with Teen Liza, but finding peace undermines Lister-Jones and Wein’s promise of freedom from existential dissatisfaction: The search for reconciliation is antithetical to the film’s “fuck it” attitude, because if Liza was truly free, she wouldn’t need to confront her parents one last time. Few people get to kick the bucket with their loose ends tied up and lifelong piques settled. How It Ends signs off on a bummer note for that reason—and with the looming meteor’s thundering arrival, that’s saying something.
Directors: Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein
Writers: Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein
Starring: Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt, Whitney Cummings, Fred Armisen, Paul Scheer, Nick Kroll, Lamorne Morris, Rob Huebel, Bobby Lee, Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Sharon Van Etten, Olivia Wilde
Release Date: July 20, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.